November 25, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
35°F

Auction house built by Amish allowed to open

Nick DeFelice stands outside the new 28,000-square-foot County Line Auction house on the northwest corner of state Route 301 and Jeffrey Road in Home Township. DeFelice owns County Line Land Co. with two other men. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY DAVID KNOX)

HOMER TWP. — A produce auction house, built in little more than a weekend last month by hundreds of Amish men, can open for business following a decision by the township Board of Zoning Appeals on Thursday night.

The 28,000-square-foot, barn-like structure, on the northwest corner of state Route 301 and Jeffrey Road, was scheduled to open May 15, but an appeal filed by a competitor resulted in a stay issued by the zoning appeals board.

“My client is very pleased the board supported him,” said Christopher Godinsky, the attorney representing the new auction’s owners. “These local farmers are just looking for a great place to sell their produce, and my client hopes to be that place.”

Nick DeFelice, who owns County Line Land Co. with two other men, said the first auction would be 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“The support from the Amish and English communities has been tremendous,” he said. “This couldn’t have happened without that.”

Most of the produce is expected to go to wholesalers representing restaurants and major supermarkets from as far away as Pittsburgh and Detroit. But DeFelice said there will be some local retail sales.

The zoning appeals board announced its decision shortly after 11 p.m. following an hour of deliberation and three hours of testimony.

If F.W. Owen, who owns the competing Homerville Wholesale Produce Auction, 9430 Spencer Road, decides to appeal the board’s decision, he will have to go through commons pleas court.

Owen’s attorney, Trina Devanney, said Owen had not decided whether to file a court challenge.

Owen filed a grievance with the zoning appeals board in early May, charging Nancy Lilly, the township’s zoning inspector, improperly granted an agricultural exemption to the new auction’s landowners, County Line Land Co., on April 30.

According to Ohio Revised Code, an agricultural exemption can free the operator of a farm market from needing a building permit as long at least half “of the gross income received from the market is derived from produce raised on farms owned or operated by the market operator in a normal crop year.”

Owen said Lilly denied his request for the exemption almost two decades ago. Instead, he was told he had to get a commercial building permit.

Lilly said she didn’t recall denying Owen’s request.

“It seems the zoning inspector made two different decisions on two similar businesses,” Owen’s attorney told the appeals board. “Mr. Owen had to get a conditional-use certificate for a commercial operation. Why’s he different?”

But DeFelice testified his auction was different than Owen’s because the produce growers — almost all Amish families — would sign lease agreements and would be the operators of the building.

Because Ohio allows the exemption as long as the produce is grown on farms “owned or operated” by the property operator, DeFelice’s attorney Christopher Godinsky argued his client’s business plan was in compliance with the law.

“Nowhere does it say the operator must be the owner,” Godinsky said.

Owen’s attorney disagreed, saying, “This is merely an attempt to skirt the law.”

Owen testified that many of the farmers who sell their products at his auction are Amish, but he said they only sign contracts, not lease agreements.

He said he is the sole owner of the land on which his auction house is built, and his own crops made up less than 1 percent of his $1.58 million gross revenue last year.

Owen’s attorney said Owen was disappointed by the board’s decision, but “he hopes to continue his good relationship with the Amish.”

Owen was granted a temporary restraining order as part of a lawsuit in Medina County Common Pleas Court.

However, it never was activated because he failed to pay 10 percent of a $10,000 bond on the order.

Owen said the case has been hard on him and his wife.

“I’ve received several threats in writing,” Owen said. “They’ve been frightening, chilling.”

He said a police report was filed regarding the threats.

Contact reporter Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or nglunt@medina-gazette.com.